This last year has spoiled us. In 11 months, we have been to 9 countries, which means we have spent at least a month in most of those places. We forgot that when you have 7 days in a country, you have to make the most of your time, to head from one place to the next without immersing yourselves in its depth. We forgot that 7 days isn't long enough for the phrases and intonations of a language to linger in our ears. We forgot that 7 days is too short a time to understand the cultural quirks, the food, and the religion. We forgot that 7 days just isn't enough.
Yonggungsa Temple, Busan
But, unfortunately, that was all the time we had in South Korea. South Korea was an unexpected stop, the result of an outrageously expensive ticket from Japan to Beijing of $1,000 USD per person one way. (Never mind that if we had purchased the ticket from Japan to Hong Kong, China Airways would have routed us through Beijing anyway. Aargh.) We took the 3 hour ferry from Fukuoka to Busan and then made our way up to Seoul to take a $130 USD flight to Beijing.
I can list out what we knew about South Korea before we went there in one sentence: it was the center of the "forgotten war," is the American-stronghold of capitalism in Asia, is bordered by a truly insane nation, has the fastest internet in the world, and produces world famous barbeque.
This, my friends, was our combined knowledge of South Korea before we got there. I cannot account for the reasons behind this truly pathetic showing except that, perhaps, South Korea was skipped over in our history classes ---- after all, it was the Forgotten War --- or is one of those countries that is never featured in travel, food, or news magazines.
At first, it reminded us of Japan on a caffeine high. People worked harder and longer; the children start school at 8:00 in the morning and then participate in after school programs, including the English classes that our friends taught, until 9:00 at night. It is the land of the beautiful people; the men and women are thin and fit with creamy ivory skin devoid of blemishes.
The women wear heels, whether they are strolling through the omnipresent designer stores in Seoul, the beaches in Busan, or the hiking trails of Gyeongju. Dating couples dress in couple-look, a matchie matchie style that simultaneously amused and revolted us.
World Cup balloons and beach, Busan
We felt the heat of nationalism in every party of the country as the citizens watched South Korea make it to the World Cup. Jumbo screens were set up on the beaches of Busan and the parks in Seoul and the streets were packed with fans clad in red and blue. When South Korea scored, the city throbbed with shouts of victory but as the game closed to an Uruguay win, disappointment crept into the silent night.
We saw beauty in the teahouses and cobblestone streets of Insadong, Seoul, and the Yonggungsa Temple that clung to the cliffs of Busan. Our favorite was the town of Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom, with the wooden Bulguska Temple and mountainous Seogukram Grotto.
The week gave us a glimpse of the country, as if we had seen it through our peripheral vision and then it disappeared. We do not know South Korea but we know a little bit more.